Apple Defends Delay of iOS 14 Feature Limiting App Tracking, Blasts Facebook

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Photo: Ming Yeung (Getty Images)

Earlier this year, human rights and privacy groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Human Rights Watch wrote to Apple, asking why it was delaying the introduction of a feature that would force apps to receive explicit opt-in from iPhone users before tracking them. Apple responded, according to Bloomberg, with a letter slamming Facebook.

Apple rolled out the privacy-enhancing feature in iOS 14 in September but hasn’t made it mandatory for developers to enable yet. The groups wrote in a letter to the tech giant stating the delay was ill-advised in the “critical weeks leading up to and following the 2020 U.S. elections, when people’s data can be used to target them with personalized political ads.”


In the letter, Apple’s global head of privacy, Jane Horvath, responded to the groups by trashing Facebook and its business model.

“Too often, information is collected about you on an app or website owned by one company and combined with information collected separately by other companies for targeted advertisements and advertising measurement,” Apple wrote. “Sometimes your data is even aggregated and resold by data brokers, which are third parties you neither know nor interact with. Tracking can be invasive, even creepy, and more often than not it takes place without meaningful user awareness or consent.”


Apple touted the App Tracking Transparency (ATT) feature as part of its overall commitment to privacy, specifically naming Facebook:

By contrast, Facebook and others have a very different approach to targeting. Not only do they allow the grouping of users into smaller segments, they use detailed data about online browsing activity to target ads. Facebook executives have made clear their intent is to collect as much data as possible across both first and third party products to develop and monetize detailed profiles of their users, and this disregard for user privacy continues to expand to include more of their products.


Horvath also said that Facebook could have been partially responsible for the delay in rolling out ATT, telling Bloomberg the expanded timeline would “give developers the time they indicated they needed to properly update their systems and data practices.”

The ATT feature is a major change for app developers and requires users to verify they want to share usage data. It also restricts apps’ access to several unique identifiers that can be used to follow a user around, affecting their ability to monitor post-install actions, target ads, or build models of user behavior. VentureBeat wrote in September that while “10 to 30% of iOS users currently limit ad personalization, and as many as 15% currently use limited ad tracking to disable their [Identifier for Advertisers],” up to 80% are expected to hit no when given the ATT prompt.


Facebook shot back in a statement to Ars Technica and other outlets that this isn’t about privacy at all—it’s about locking down iOS with anticompetitive tactics to give Apple’s in-house offerings and unfair advantage. It has a point, as Apple is currently facing antitrust complaints from the ad industry over the iOS 14 update, as well as from companies including Spotify, Telegram, and Epic Games. The House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee recently found that Apple’s mandatory requirement that app developers use its payment platform is anticompetitive, as is the way it restricts APIs, modifies search rankings, and sets default apps. The Department of Justice antitrust division is reportedly looking into Apple along with other big tech firms, including Google, though details about the Apple probe remain vague.

“The truth is Apple has expanded its business into advertising and through its upcoming iOS 14 changes is trying to move the free internet into paid apps and services where they profit,” Facebook told Ars Technica. “As a result, they are using their dominant market position to self-preference their own data collection while making it nearly impossible for their competitors to use the same data. They claim it’s about privacy, but it’s about profit.”


This feud has been going on for a while. In August, Facebook warned that the iOS update could lower publisher revenue via its Audience Network by up to 50%. That month, Facebook also said that it was forced to strip down the version of Facebook Gaming available via the App Store due to TOS restrictions.

“Unfortunately, we had to remove gameplay functionality entirely in order to get Apple’s approval on the standalone Facebook Gaming app—meaning iOS users have an inferior experience to those using Android,” chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg wrote in a statement.